Steven Jones, the founder of the Seafarers Happiness Index on the rise of grin washing.
You have probably heard the expression “green-washing”. When a company or industry gives the false impression what they do is more environmentally sound than it actually is. Such green-washing exists to exaggerate claims or accentuate benefits to mislead. You might wonder how this could possibly relate to seafarers?
Well, in compiling the results of the latest Seafarers Happiness Index (SHI), we are seeing worryingly similar signs of attempts to emphasise positives at the expense of reality. “Grin-washing” as it were.
While we saw (spoiler alert) a jump in satisfaction this Quarter, as crew changes ran more smoothly, COVID rules were relaxed, and new Maritime Labour Convention connectivity developments were agreed. Things may not quite be all they seem. There are some big buts and we cannot lie.
We spotted a potentially worrying trend in which there were seemingly superficial attempts to raise morale, but which lack the real fundamental changes needed to sustain it. So while the data may be positive now, one would have to question how this can be maintained.
Time and time again, we heard from seafarers whose ships had received new gym equipment, some fancy audio-visual kit, refrigerators in cabins even, and new roles allocated for wellbeing and bon homme onboard. We heard of enthusiastic encouragement to create lovely new spaces onboard, all with the goal of bringing people together.
Real change is about understanding the genuine barriers to progress
Which all seems great. Indeed, on the face of it, the message of what seafarers want and need to thrive is finally getting through. Job done? Woah there, not quite. Alas, when you look past the numbers, the written insights from seafarers tell a slightly different, more problematic story. Things seem a little different.
For all the positives and well-meant intentions, there are simply too many seafarers who do not feel that they have either the time or energy to do anything but work, eat, ablute and sleep. The new kit, ideas, spaces and roles just pearls cast before swine if there is no opportunity to actually relax or enjoy things.
So we see this troubling trend where a company gives the impression that what they provide for seafarers is more fun, uplifting or useful than it actually is. Grin-washing indeed. Which is perhaps even more significant as we are seeing new initiatives to audit, check, and verify the ways in which seafarers are treated.
It would be all too tempting to assume that a ship with the latest kit and caboodle for crew entertainment would be set to fly through any survey, vetting or checks. How could crew fail to be happy with a 60inch OLED, latest Sony Karaoke set up, PS5 and a gym that would make Tyson Fury jealous? How indeed?
Well, imagine having all those things but no time to make use of it. No let-up in a schedule which exhausts and frustrates. Too few people to turn to, no wiggle room in the relenting work schedule, just work, more work and then even more.
Indeed, when the words from seafarers are dissected in forensic detail, we hear over and over again that there is simply too much to do and not enough time to do it. Let alone time for some element of pleasure. There is a problematic tightrope being walked, and the hard truth is that seafarers feel their work to be all consuming with little appetite or energy left for leisure.
There may be new management focus ashore, and even roles at sea for mental health champions and the like, all focused on trying to make life better, more enjoyable. Working on building the foundations upon which happiness, wellbeing and good mental health can be built. Which is fantastic, however, it takes more than good intensions. Empathy, understanding and realism is needed, and that involves looking beyond the obvious and visible.
The changes, investments and a new perspective will indeed help drive wellbeing forward. Though what we actually need is a deeper dive into the real problems. We need to see the whole, not some airbrushed hope. This is not fixed by chucking in some budget line for new gym equipment on the ship. There is a need to step out of the vacuum, because seafarers exist in the whole not just the part.
Real change is about understanding the genuine barriers to progress. Which is too few people having to do too much. There are too many seafarers feeling tired, stressed, unsupported, irritated, frustrated and without the support they need to get the job done. These crews will not be able to sing along with Celine or bench press 175. They will be forced to retreat even further into their thoughts and dissatisfaction, perhaps even sadness.
We need a double check to ensure that the foundations of happiness onboard are not merely the trinkets and baubles of a procurement department run wild through Amazon. That they are built upon the innate understanding and compassion of a company that knows people feel better with time to relax, with support around them, and with a real world working schedule that allows some life to actually be lived.
By all means spend on seafarer comforts, in fact please, please do. Go ahead, create the best gym, amazing onboard cinemas, coffee shops, whatever it takes. It has to be done though as part of real change. A change where people feel they can rest, recover and actually enjoy recreation. Anything else is just an illusion, the rictus grins no more real than the flogged hours of rest records.